Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Odds and ends in Blue Pools and Boulderfest Canyons

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona, Utah by canyoneering on January 25, 2017

Seth on the pack raft across Canyon Lake to do Boulderfest Canyon.

Canyoneering can be intense, multi-day and on occasion can quickly become epic. Other times it just is a way to relax and spend a portion of the day with a litter of water and some rope and relaxing in some narrow places. These types of adventures don’t leave behind much to say about them but they still enrich your soul. With 2016 faded into history and the arrival of 2017 I thought it would be a good time to dust off some odds and ends of two half day adventures of the past year, where not much happened. That was what was so nice about them.

Blue Pool Canyon

Blue Pool Canyon 3AI
Lake Powell area
June 2016

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After an intense all day adventure descending Checkerboard Canyon in Zion National Park the day before all I had in store for this day was the seven hour drive back to Phoenix. To break up the drive I decided for a quick solo descent down Blue Pool Canyon. I had spotted this slot while driving over it on U.S. Route 89 en route to other canyoneering adventures in southern Utah. It had always looked enticing at 60mph so for the first time instead of driving over it I pull off into a sandy parking area, gear up and head under the bridge. A few easy drops, a few photos and a little bit of walking and the slot opens up. I navigate my way out of the canyon into the sandstone world above and back to the highway, enjoying the quiet, solitude and exercise before the remainder of my drive home.  

Seth silhouetted after a rappel.

Boulderfest Canyon 3AII
Superstition Wilderness Area
10/25/16

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When one of my closest childhood friends was in town visiting, as the host I was charged with the task of filling our days with activities; being the camp director so to speak. Like Blue Pool Canyon, Boulderfest Canyon, had always been on my mind from the dozens of times I would look at it while driving past Canyon Lake en route to other adventures. I knew a descent would take no more than 2/3 of a day with driving, the weather was agreeable and I thought Seth would get a kick out of the packraft across the lake, assuming we did get killed by a powerboat driving over us. The packraft was unremarkable under a hot Autumn Arizona sun. It did requires some muscle to make it across but we got there. Even more challenging was deflating out boats with no flat shoreline. Up and over a saddle and down the other side and we were in Boulderfest. You could see the lake for the entire descent. Seth faced his fear, managed the rappels and down climbs and rather quickly we were re-inflating our boats for the float home, or at least back to our vehicles. Seth and I were back home, showered and in time for a 7pm dinner reservation.

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New Years Eve, reflections, including Skeleton Cave Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on December 31, 2015

Sunrise on the approach.

Skeleton Cave Canyon, 3AIII
Tonto National Forest – Four Peaks Wilderness
10/18/15

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I type these words on the last day of 2015. Tomorrow a New Year. But for now forced nostalgia. For me it was an unprecedented year. Unique, special, intense, exhausting, gratifying are just a few of the adjectives I would use to describe it. Below is a look back on the many blessings I experienced and also what I survived.

2015

As you can see #11 states “Still experiencing 7 technical canyon descents w/ great friends despite everything.” To some it may seem out of place or trivial with the others on the list. They would be wrong. Canyoneering is a critical part of my life. The sport allows me to experience the rawness and beauty of nature, push myself physically and mentally and bond with friends in a way I can’t duplicate in other ways. Despite what was otherwise a crazy year I feel very fortunate for having experienced those canyons. Skeleton Cave Canyon was one of those seven descents. It was not a particularly special canyon. It was however an opportunity to experience wilderness and friendship in the best and truest of terms. It is the summation of camping the night before and the pleasantries that go with it, required navigation, being in rugged beauty, transportation via foot, paddles and rope and most importantly sharing it with the friends alongside you, that makes it so special and important.

Mark climbs to the Skeleton Cave and the start of the descent.

My “Blessed with…” list probably could not have been much better, but my “Survived…” list, no doubt, could have been much worse. Or one could not survive at all. Such was the case for 75 Apache Indians who in 1872 were brutally shot and killed with their backs to a cave by General George Crook and the 5th Cavalry. The cave is really more of an alcove and marks the start of the descent of Skeleton Cave Canyon. The bones of the Apaches are long gone, although we did see holes in the walls that we believe could be bullet holes from the massacre. For more about the Skeleton Cave massacre click here. 

Mark points to what could be a bullet hole from the Skeleton Cave Massacre of 1872.

Mark points to what could be a bullet hole from the Skeleton Cave Massacre of 1872.

It must have been frightening hidden in a rugged alcove a 1,000 feet above the Salt River knowing the cavalry is literally coming for you, but not for rescue. Did nostalgia or reflection of the past enter their minds amid the crisis? For me (not in crisis) I like reflection at the end of the year, even if its forced. It is a big exhalation before looking forward to many blessings and canyons in 2016, hopefully just with more sleep.

Pick Axe Canyon, 35- minutes from strip malls and Starbucks

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on December 10, 2014

Chris moves through the short narrows of Pick Axe Canyon.

Pick Axe Canyon, 3AII
Tonto National Forest – Superstition Wilderness
11/25/14

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After nine years of living in the Valley of the Sun I am still amazed at just how close this metropolitan sprawl sits on the edge of truly rugged wilderness. A recent Wednesday in the middle of a week off for the Thanksgiving holiday, provided a visceral reminder of how it’s just 35 minutes to get from strip malls and Starbucks to rugged canyons and soaring mesas.

After Chris puts in a half day of work we rendezvouse at a gas station on the edge of the sprawl and drive deeper into the desert. It is a new canyon for both Chris and I, known as Pick Axe Canyon that features a 240- foot rappel and a packraft along Canyon Lake to complete the loop. The short adventure begins on a well defined trail that must have been created well before canyoneers began visiting this nondescript drainage; perhaps for mining. We quickly reach the drainage and hike to its edge. A bend of Canyon Lake, can be seen in the distance as it slithers through the canyon walls glowing in the late November light. An 80- foot free hanger gets us in proper. The drainage takes the shape of more of a gully coming off of the mesa above, than a canyon cutting through the desert. I comment that we should call this gullyneering as opposed to canyoneering. Never-the-less, the travel is scenic and the brush not all that thick as we make our way closer to Canyon Lake. Just before the big rappel, the drainage even tightens into some narrows of sort. With just two of the us the 240-rappel is negotiated quickly and we are inflating our rafts as a power boat speeds by.

Chris pack rafting on Canyon Lake.

Chris pack rafting on Canyon Lake.

The paddle could not be anymore pleasant in the late afternoon light and all too quickly we are deflating out boats and stowing them back into our packs. Chris and I power walk up the road to get the heart rate going and in no time we are back at our vehicle. As we sip on our craft beers I bask in the good fortune to live in a city that is this close to this. Of course these wild places don’t exist this close to urban centers and stay that way by accident. It is the hard work of our fellow man that have protected these places for myself and future generations.

– David

Check out a project I worked on for the Arizona Republic about wilderness in Arizona on this 50 year anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act by President Lyndon Johnson by clicking here.

Exploration and technical canyon discovery in the Four Peaks Wilderness

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on December 17, 2009

Blue Tank Canyon, 2BV/ Hells Hip Pocket 3BV
Tonto National Forest – Four Peaks Wilderness
11/22/09, 12/12/09 – 12/14/09

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The system looked promising on topographic maps, but remote. Canyon Lake and the Salt River blocked it to the south. A large road less area (or least roads that are passable) of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area filled with rolling washes, and rugged canyons surrounded it to the west, north and east.  Did a technical canyon exist within? I decided to find out on what would be one of my first real canyon pioneering adventures.

PART 1:

The first leg of the exploration began partially as training for an adventure race I would be participating in several weeks with my friend and one of my canyoneering partners, John. The adventure race included a section of kayaking. John and I thought it would be prudent to do a trial run in a tandem kayak before the race. A perfect opportunity to get some paddle in and allow for penetration into the canyon system from the bottom. Along with Laura in a single kayak, we made our way across a choppy Canyon Lake and up the Salt River into a direct head wind to the bottom of Blue Tank Canyon. Mormon Flat Dam at Canyon Lake has raised the water levels of the Salt River back into Blue Tank Canyon making for a short stretch of paddle surrounded by narrow canyon walls. After stowing our kayaks on dry land, we continued through the narrows by foot. The walls quickly got higher and tighter and transitioned from beige to blue in color revealing the origins of its name and giving us a beautiful stretch of canyon. A 10- foot dry fall was climbed with not too much difficulty. Before not too long the canyon opened up and became less interesting. John, Laura and I slogged up the canyon, negotiating several easy dry falls and passing an area of crystal clear spring fed pools hidden beneath thick vegetation before reaching the confluence of Hells Hip Pocket. With our rental kayaks due back that evening and the long paddle to the Canyon Lake Marina ahead of us, we only ventured a short distance up Blue Tank Canyon past Hells Hip Pocket before heading back down canyon. Even though I was slightly disappointed that during our ascent we were not stopped dead in our tracks by an un-climbable dry fall signaling technical canyon above, I felt confident there still could be something of note in either upper Blue Tank or Hells Hip Pocket. I looked to return to the system from above as soon as possible.

Laura kayaks into Blue Tank Canyon.

PART 2:

Nearly a month later, with 60- pound packs on our backs filled with a full arsenal of canyoneering gear, Eric and I slowly hiked up Trail 84 to set up a base camp and further explore the system from above. Hiking through mine fields of cholla pods and past wild burros we set up camp near a natural spring alongside a bullet ridden aluminum shack in the shadow of Four Peaks. That afternoon we dropped into the far upper reaches of Blue Tank Canyon. The first mile and half of the canyon were chocked with catclaw, prickly pear and other evil desert vegetation, shredding our legs, arms and hands. Eventually the vegetation subsided and the canyon changed character as walls closed in and the canyon got deeper. We were faced with several moderately challenging down climbs and waist deep pools to wade. We continued to the point where John, Laura and I had turned around a month earlier from below. It was confirmed. Blue Tank though challenging and beautiful does not require the use of ropes for a descent. Finding an alternate route back to camp along a high ridge and adjacent canyon we reached our camp several hours after dark. The following day we planned to descend Hells Hip Pocket and exit the system via Blue Tank.

From camp it took several hours of hiking up onto a ridge to reach the upper confines of Hells Hip Pocket. Along the way we saw deer and javelina. Hells Hip Pocket consists of five branches all draining from the same high ridge. We decided to descend via the easternmost branch, which is the one furthest from the confluence with Blue Tank and on the map appeared to be the main drainage. The canyon was moderately interesting and very different in character from Blue Tank. Certain sections were filled with brush but for the most part the hiking was not too unpleasant. We were able to avoid getting wet and rappelling by traversing ledges and moderately difficult down climbing. We did set up one 35- foot rappel off a pinch point down a dry fall. The fall could have been down climbed but appeared sketchy and under a light drizzle we felt rappelling was the safer option. As we slowly passed Hells Hip Pocket’s adjoining branches under the steady and cold drizzle, a slight level of disappointment was setting in that were not going to find anything of note. Then out of nowhere the canyon rounded a bend and dropped into a deep and dark slot. Eric and I were giddy with excitement as we evaluated the drop and looked for a natural anchor.

With no signs of webbing anywhere we decided on a small, but secure boulder above the drop. The rappel was approximately 40- feet. The canyon walls were beautifully tight and convoluted, undulating in weird angles. About 100- feet beyond the first drop, a second longer drop ended in a deep pool. Again there were no signs of webbing anywhere, so we took our time to evaluate the natural anchor options. Using a pinch point on a shelf above the drop, the rappel was exactly 50- feet into a 75- foot swimmer.

After the frigid swim and very short stretch of tight narrows to follow, the canyon opened back up to its former self. We hit the confluence with Blue Tank and began the long and strenuous climb up the canyon, followed by the alternate return route of the previous day. Again we reached camp several hours after dark. Around the campfire we discussed the possibility that we made the first descent. Though I feel it is impossible to make the claim with 100 percent certainty, the canyon’s remoteness and the complete absence of any signs of webbing seemed that ours was in fact a first descent.

The following morning we slept in and lounged around camp before the backpack out on a crisp December Arizona day. For the first time all weekend all four of the Four Peaks were not shrouded behind clouds. A lot of work had gone into the exploration and approach of this remote canyon that only yielded a short section of technical canyon.  I could not have been more thrilled with the discovery and the process, adding a whole new element to the sport.

-David